The Honda Grand Prix Car

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The long-awaited Grand Prix car built by the Honda Motor Company of Tokyo made its first public appearance at the Nurburgring for the German Grand Prix, having been out on test on the Zandvoort circuit a short time before. A lot of wild things have been written and spoken about the Honda concern, mostly due to the reputation that Honda motorcycles have built up in motorcycle racing, especially in the 250 c.c. and 350 c.c. categories. There is no doubt that the 4-cylinder Honda motorcycle made a big impression in motorcycle racing, and the production sports twin-cylinder models and single-cylinder mopeds have continued the good name set by the racing motorcycles, but we must not forget that Honda racing bikes started in a very inconspicuous manner and progressed as the seasons went by; they did not appear on the scene and win immediately. Equally they have not proved invincible, although few competitors stood the pace, but they have been beaten in the past and this year have been beaten frequently by the Japanese Yamaha two-stroke twin-cylinder bicycle, in the fiercely contested 250-c.c. class. There have been those people who thought that the Grand Prix Honda racing car was going to be all-conquering the moment it appeared, while more reasonable people recalled the Honda entry into motorcycle racing, where they picked classes in which the standard was not too high; they did not try and beat the 500 c.c. MV Agusta 4-cylinder for example. By any standards today’s Grand Prix field is hotly contested, and Lotus, B.R.M., Brabham, Ferrari, and Coventry-Climax are a tough collection of knowledgeable competitors to keep up with, let alone beat. I do not think anyone in the Honda concern really expected their car to shatter the racing world on its first appearance, but such is the publicity accrued from motorcycle racing successes, that the Grand Prix car was preceded by almost fanatical expectations which seemed to emanate from Europe rather than Japan! To the obvious displeasure of many European people, the Honda team signed up a comparatively unknown American sports car driver to handle the car in its first season, rather than a known Grand Prix star, but it was not for want of trying for both Dan Gurney and Phil Hill were approached before Ron Bucknum was finally chosen. Gurney and Hill were already committed to other projects, so Honda did not have much choice and they could obviously use Bucknum as a comparator to the top Grand Prix drivers, and they also had to get the car raceworthy, and in that Bucknum would be more useful, having no preconceived conceptions or misconceptions about Grand Prix cars. As he lives in California he is a lot closer to Tokyo than an equally unknown British driver.

By Lotus or B.R.M. standards the Honda is not a pretty car, nor is it sleek and smooth, or even beautifully engineered, and it gave the impression of being more of a travelling test-bed than the finalised design. The chassis consists of a stressed skin centre section, in which the cockpit is located, and the front suspension is mounted on the fore-most bulkhead. The transverse-mounted engine is attached to the bulkhead at the rear of this centre-section and a multi-tubular space frame surrounds the engine/gearbox unit and carries the rear suspension. This construction was used by B.R.M. on their 1963 car, but it did not work due to the difficulty of making the all-important rear bulkhead sufficiently rigid, as it had to have openings in it for various ancillaries, and the top could not be supported ideally as the cockpit had to have an open top. After much experimentation B.R.M. were forced to go to a full-length stressed skin construction, so it will be interesting to see how Honda make out with the stressed skin and tubular frame layout. Front suspension follows present day trends, with a rocker-arm top wishbone operating on an inboard coil spring/damper unit, and inboard anti-roll bar, and a transverse lower arm and rear-ward running radius arm which has a nasty looking bend half-way along its length to allow for steering lock. At the rear the suspension is a lot less orthodox, having the coil spring unit entirely separate from the suspension members. At the top a wishbone is pivoted on the chassis by its apex and a radius arm runs forward from the hub-carrier, about which the base of the wishbone is pivoted. At the bottom of the hub carrier a single transverse arm is used with a forward running radius arm; just like a Lotus but inverted. Entirely separated and mounted inside the body is a further wishbone pivoting about its base, this axis being at 45° to the centre-line of the car. The coil spring unit is mounted between the apex of this inboard wishbone and part of the rear space-frame, and a long tubular strut joins the bottom of the coil spring unit to the outer pivot of the top suspension wishbone. This layout gets the spring inside the bodywork and reduces unsprung weight at the slight expense of increased sprung weight. Brakes are Dunlop discs and all four are mounted outboard, wheels are Dunlop alloy with pin drive and knock-off centre-lock hub nuts, and tyres are the latest type of Dunlop 7.00 x 13 in. The most intriguing part of the car and of the greatest interest to European designers is the power unit, the engine, gearbox and final drive being in one unit. The engine is a 60-degree V12 cylinder layout, with two overhead camshafts to each bank. The drive for the camshafts is taken from the centre of the crankshaft and from this drive spur gears run to the gearbox and to the final drive so that crankshaft, gearbox shafts and final drive shaft are all in the same plane, which is at right-angles to the fore-and-aft axis of the car. This is the sort of layout used on Honda 4-cylinder racing motorcycles, and used by Gilera and MV motorcycles for many years. It is interesting to record that Maserati have had an exactly similar V12 transverse-mounted, unit-construction Formula One engine on the test-bed for more than two years and though it has done a lot of experimental running it has never been installed in a chassis. The Honda uses conventional inlet ports in the vee of the engine, fed by twelve tiny Japanese motorcycle carburetters. The engine is canted slightly forwards, which makes access to the front bank of sparking plugs a bit difficult, and with four valves per cylinder there is only room for one Japanese NGK plug per cylinder, ignition being at present by an energy-transfer system driven off the nearside of the gearbox. The front exhaust pipes run downwards under the engine, merging into two tail pipes and the rear ones protrude over the rail, the left-hand three running into one tail-pipe and the right-hand three into another, there being no megaphones on the ends. The multiplate clutch is mounted externally on the right of the 6-speed gearbox and is hydraulically operated, and a vast water pump is driven from the same shaft that drives the clutch, the pump being on the left of the gearbox. A light tubular framework behind the final drive carries a large battery and the bodywork encloses the whole of the mechanism. In the cockpit the gear lever is on the right-hand side, the tiny leather-covered steering wheel is set slightly to the left and an 18,000-r.p.m. tachometer is used. The engine is supposed to give peak power at 12,500 r.p.m. and while no b.h.p. figures have been quoted the aim must be to have over 200 b.h.p. otherwise the car would not be competitive. During practice at Nurburgring the car would only pull 10,500 r.p.m. in top gear, and though it would go to over 12,000 r.p.m. in the gears the power was falling off rapidly and there seemed little point in revving so high.

While being of great interest the Honda was not unduly impressive either in its finish and construction, or its performance, but remembering the progress made with racing motorcycles in two years it will be interesting to review the progress with the car by the end of next season when the current 1½-litre formula ends. The car has been just about one year late in appearing on the circuits, so that its racing life can only be one and a half seasons. The question for the future is whether Honda are preparing for the 1966 formula.

As a footnote it is worth mentioning that Honda motorcycles in the 250 c.c. class were trounced once again by the two-stroke Yamaha twin-cylinder in the Ulster Grand Prix on the magnificent Dundrod circuit in Northern Ireland, so perhaps the Honda image is stumbling.—D. S. J.